Antelope Audio are very proud of the AFX system, which they see as a major selling point for their audio interfaces. Conceptually, it's not dissimilar from Univeral Audio's UAD platform or Pro Tools HDX, in that the processors run on hardware within the interface, rather than using the host computer's CPU. In broad outline, the range of AFX available also overlaps to an extent with the UAD 'Powered Plug-ins' range, and is likewise focused mainly on emulations of classic studio hardware. There are, however, some significant differences, and Antelope themselves don't use the term 'plug-in' to describe AFX.
One difference is that whereas the UAD and HDX systems employ multiple SHARC DSP chips to handle the processing, Antelope's interfaces use a single field-programmable gate array (FPGA). A benefit of this is that there are no issues relating to the distribution of processing load across separate chips; you simply add plug-ins until the entire system runs out of juice. I was surprised to find that there's no meter showing what proportion of the FPGA's processing resources is taken up, but Antelope say that this is impossible to implement because of the way their plug-ins share resources. On the down side, whereas UA and Avid allow you to boost your system's DSP resources by bolting on Satellite units or adding further HDX cards, there is no direct equivalent in Antelope Audio's range.
The AFX plug-ins are inserted on 16 channels, each of which has eight insert slots. These channels are addressed through dedicated input and output patch points in the Orion's routing matrix, an arrangement that is flexible enough to support a pretty wide range of possible configurations. One obvious approach would be to route 16 hardware inputs into the AFX patch points; you could then either record the AFX-processed signals by routing the AFX outputs to the Thunderbolt or USB Rec patch points, or leave those connected directly to the hardware inputs and route the AFX outputs only into the mixers, so that they remain only in the monitor path. Alternatively, you could route 16 Thunderbolt Play patch points to the AFX inputs and treat them as a 16-channel effects processor, addressed from your DAW. You could turn it into a powerful stand-alone digital effects unit by routing the MADI or ADAT inputs into the AFX input, and if you wanted to get really fancy, you could even route multiple AFX outputs into one of the Orion's mixers, then patch the output of that mixer into another pair of AFX channels to implement bus processing. The only obvious functional limitation is that there is no send/return structure, but it would also be nice if there was a global visual overview that allowed you to take in the entire AFX setup at a glance — at present you can only view a single channel at a time.
The Orion 32+ sounds as good as interfaces costing much more, and does twice as much as they do.
Antelope Audio are constantly adding new AFX to the line-up, and this now includes more than 50 different processors in total. However, not all of their interfaces support all of the processors, and in fact around half of the collection is not available for the Orion 32+. There is no support for Antelope's Edge mic–modelling system, since that requires a dedicated hardware input stage that's not present here, but Orion owners also miss out on all of the company's guitar–amp emulations and mic preamp models, which seems a shame. True, the Orion has no mic or instrument preamp inputs, but it's not as though it won't be used to record microphones or guitars; it's just that you'd typically route these through a console first. You'd think that users might also want the option to re-amp (or re-preamp?) their signals after the fact. It's also striking that apart from the global AuraVerb, there are currently no delay-based or reverb effects available for any AFX-enabled interface — even Antelope's guitar amp emulations don't model reverb tanks.
Of the AFX that are available, six are bundled free with the Orion: the aforementioned AuraVerb, which occupies its own dedicated position in the mixer, plus a very competent EQ, compressor, de-esser, expander and gate. They're well-specified and effective, but not wildly different from the generic processors you'll find in many other audio interface mixers, for instance from RME and MOTU. The excitement around AFX centres, rather, on the processors that emulate classic and modern studio hardware.
On both the dynamics and equalisation fronts, the list of emulated devices on offer is pretty mouth-watering, and includes some devices I've not previously seen recreated in software, such as the RCA BA-6A compressor and Lang PEQ2 equaliser. The EQ category also includes several emulations of Neumann and Studer designs along with the more familiar SSL, API and Neve–alikes, while among the Vintage Compressors, you'll find virtual Grove Hill Audio Liverpool and Retro/UA 176 valve models, as well as the classic UREI, dbx and Fairchild types. (The former is one of the handful of Antelope's AFX that are officially licensed recreations; most of the others are creatively named homages.) The review period was too short to fully explore the 19 Vintage EQ and 15 Vintage Compressor models installed in the review system, but the ones I tried were uniformly impressive. I particularly liked the models with emulated valve circuitry, such as that Lang EQ and the Gates/Retro-inspired 'Stay-Levin' compressor; what begins as a touch of warmth evolves nicely into thickness and saturation as you crank up the input dial.
From a sonic perspective, then, I think Antelope's AFX definitely hold their own both with rival native plug-ins and with DSP-based alternatives. They are also priced roughly in alignment with UA's range, generally listing at $195, $245 or $295 each, and significant savings can be made either by purchasing bundles or waiting for Antelope's regular sale events. So the question of whether this represents good value for money turns not on how good they are but on how useful they are; and the key issue here is DAW integration. The point of UAD's Powered Plug-ins and Waves' SoundGrid processors is that they can be run in two different ways: independently of the DAW as a low-latency 'front end' for tracking, like the AFX, or loaded into insert slots in a DAW, where they behave just like native plug-ins as far as the user is concerned. This DAW integration makes a huge difference to the usefulness of externally hosted processing, and for some of their interfaces, Antelope make available a plug-in called AFX2DAW that allows the AFX to be used in DAWs. Unfortunately, this is not yet available for the Orion 32+, and although Antelope's Vintage Equaliser and Compressor models sound very good, they won't deliver full value until it is.
During the review period, I also experienced some odd AFX-related behaviour: on occasion all the compressors simply stopped compressing, and I once found myself in a situation where clicking to load new AFX into slots did nothing, and I had to quit the control panel. Antelope say they're aware of the former issue and are working on a fix, but in general, although their software has definitely improved over the years, I still feel it doesn't quite match the quality of their hardware design. In particular, there are a number of single-click actions, such as recalling presets, that completely reset either the entire panel's settings or a large subset of them, without warning and without the option to undo. It would be heartbreaking to set up an elaborate cue mix and AFX configuration, only to accidentally touch one of the preset buttons and lose it all before you'd saved! The situation is not helped by Antelope's written documentation, which is quite basic and rarely helpful in troubleshooting. In a professional situation where time is money, some of the cost saving in buying an Orion might need to be balanced against time spent figuring out software quirks, or contacting tech support to ask questions that should be answered in the manual.
So, to return to the question I posed at the start of this review, does the Orion represent a way to save yourself money without compromising on quality? From the hardware point of view, my answer is an unreserved yes. The Orion 32+ sounds as good as interfaces costing much more, and does twice as much as they do. From the perspective of audio quality, I'd be equally happy to have an Orion 32+ in my studio as I would any of the competing products mentioned at the start of this revew. It delivers excellent low-latency performance when connected by Thunderbolt, with the useful option of USB 2 as a backup; and unlike those modular rivals, it offers an advanced system of effects processing and 64 channels of MADI and 16 of ADAT I/O in addition to its core 32-channel A-D/D-A functionality, all within a single 1U rack. As long as the software element of the system works ergonomically for you, and runs reliably on your Mac or PC, it represents superb value for money, and if you're in the market for a device of this sort you should try it out in your studio to see whether that's the case.
As the Thunderbolt protocol is at heart an externalised version of PCIe, it offers the potential for very low-latency operation, and Antelope's drivers make full use of this potential. At the second–lowest (32-sample) buffer size, Reaper reported a round-trip latency of 3.1ms at 44.1kHz, but when I ran a loopback test, I found the actual measurement was lower — only just above 2ms, in fact. This is a very good figure indeed; and although I don't have a Windows machine with Thunderbolt for testing, Antelope's measurements suggest it performs even better under Windows 10. You might be able to shave a few fractions of a millisecond off by running at the 16-sample buffer size, though this was beyond my ageing Mac.
When connected over USB, by contrast, the Orion 32+ uses generic drivers, namely the Apple Core Audio USB driver on Mac OS and the ubiquitous Thesycon driver for Windows. You'd expect performance to be more pedestrian over USB, and it is; I measured the round-trip latency at a 32-sample buffer size at 44.1kHz as being about 5.6ms on my Mac, and Antelope's figures suggest that Windows performance is similar. Given that the Orion can only operate with a restricted channel count over USB in any case, it's probably best to think of USB operation as a useful reserve option rather than a straight alternative to Thunderbolt connection.
- Good-sounding hardware that delivers excellent technical specifications.
- Very good value for money given the audio quality on offer.
- Provides 64 inputs and outputs to your DAW over Thunderbolt, with excellent low-latency performance and a huge complement of analogue, MADI and ADAT I/O.
- USB connection available as an alternative to Thunderbolt.
- AFX system offers a wide range of good-sounding vintage compressor and EQ emulations, which can be used with minimal latency.
- Flexible internal mixing and routing.
- The software component of the system isn't as robust or as elegant as it might be.
- Documentation isn't great.
- The AFX2DAW plug-in that allows AFX to be used in your DAW is not yet available for the Orion.
- AFX range doesn't include any delay or reverb effects, and many others are not offered on the Orion.
- Lower channel count and less good low-latency performance over USB.
- No Thunderbolt cable supplied.
The Orion 32+ packs an enormous amount of I/O into a 1U rack, and offers excellent audio quality at a compelling price. If Antelope can bring their AFX processors into the DAW world and further improve the software side of the user experience, it'll be a world-beater.